OPINION | Province's pandemic response gets support, so where is Kenney's COVID bump?

“It is also plausible that, if not for those policy choices around health care, Kenney’s numbers coming out of COVID could have soared.” Political scientists Duane Bratt and Melanee Thomas on why the Alberta premier didn’t get a meaningful pandemic "bump."

Albertans are both rallying behind the government, and punishing it

Premier Jason Kenney at the Alberta Legislature addressing the COVID-19 outbreak. Why would Albertans have such high ratings of the province’s work on COVID-19 but begrudge Kenney and his party a bigger boost? There are a couple of political science theories that explain it. (Art Raham/CBC)

EDITOR'S NOTE: CBC News and The Road Ahead commissioned this public opinion research in May as the lockdown in Alberta was eased. It follows similar research conducted in March, just as the social and economic shock of COVID-19 was becoming apparent. As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time. 

This opinion article is part of a series of articles to come out of this research. You can find links to the previous stories at the bottom of this one. More stories are to follow.

In the CBC News Road Ahead 2020 poll, our numbers are clear: a majority of Albertans think their governments — municipal, provincial and federal — handled the COVID-19 pandemic well. Of these, the provincial government gets the highest rating at 70 per cent.

You'd think that this would correspond to a boost in Albertans' approval of the Kenney government. 

And there is. Sort of. 

Support for the UCP generally is up marginally from just before COVID-19 hit, though down significantly from 2019. 

Albertans were also asked to rate their approval of the premier on a 0 (low) to 10 (high) scale. In March, before the impact of COVID became evident, Kenney was at 4.1. In May he was at 4.4. 

That bump is trivially small. 

So, what's going on? 

Why would Albertans have such high ratings of the province's work on COVID, but begrudge Kenney and his party a bigger boost? 

Rally or reward-punish

There are a couple of political science theories to explain why governments and government leaders can get a boost in a crisis. 

Both can come across as common sense ("No, really?") but we can use both of them to help explain the apparent disconnect in how Albertans reacted to government actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first is "rallying around the flag," and the second is the "reward-punish" thesis. 

"Rallying around the flag" theory says that in times of crisis, voters unite behind the flag, leading to a sharp increase in support for politicians already in office. 

In wartime, you have examples like  Franklin D. Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor, and George W. Bush after 9/11. 

And during this pandemic we've seen many leader approvals get a bump.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford's popularity was up 38 points during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Angus Reid. So why is Kenney different? (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Angus Reid's quarterly report on premiers' ratings uses a different scale than the CBC News poll — 0 to 100, rather than 0 to 10 — but it shows a big jump for several premiers. Premier Ford is up 38 points, Premier Horgan is up 25 points. Even Prime Minister Trudeau is up 22 points, and 62 per cent of Albertans like how he's handled COVID-19. 

So why is Kenney different? 

Let's look at the other theory — "reward-punish."

It argues that voters reward incumbents when they think politicians did well, and they punish them when they think they have performed poorly. This thesis is the foundation for economic voting

That said, doling out a reward or punishment can be far more random than you might expect. Political science suggests voters can punish governments for things well outside of their control. Like, say, a natural disaster, or even shark attacks.

So there is an interaction of numbers here. Albertans are most likely rallying around the government's handling of the pandemic, while at the same time punishing it for its performance on other issues.

Health care, parks and the economy

Unlike most other provincial governments, Alberta's chose to barrel ahead with the Kenney government's legislative plan, despite COVID-19.

When other legislatures were moving to a skeleton crew and slowing non-pandemic-related legislation until after the initial crisis had passed, much of what passed through the Alberta legislature wasn't related to the pandemic. 

This might have made some Albertans uneasy, though it is more reasonable to expect that few Albertans were paying close attention, especially during the height of the crisis. Whatever broke through the noise and stress to resonate with Albertans had to be strong indeed. 

For us, the obvious explanation rests in health care.

The premier staunchly defended the minister of health, Tyler Shandro, despite issues with his conduct. This politicized health care during the COVID-19 crisis, pitting the government against the physicians on the pandemic’s front line. (CBC)

Given that most see COVID, at least in part, as a health care crisis, Albertans could have been primed to pay more attention to health care during the crisis than they might have given other issues and changes. And the Kenney government certainly gave them plenty to pay attention to: they proceeded with plans to curtail physician compensation during the pandemic, including curtailing rural fees

They launched an app that paid doctors outside of Alberta more for their services. The premier staunchly defended the minister of health, despite obviously problematic issues with his conduct. This explosively politicized health care during the COVID-19 crisis, pitting the government against the physicians on the pandemic's front line. 

Another issue which could have been dragging Kenney down is parks.

While controversial changes delisting several provincial parks predated COVID, some of the reasons why, including strip mining for coal, were not made apparent until Albertans were engaged in serious physical distancing measures. Cooped up at home but wanting to flee to the great outdoors may have made this news more salient to more people than it otherwise might have been. 

It is plausible that, if not for COVID-19, Kenney's choices around health care (and parks) could have driven his approval ratings much lower. 

It is also plausible that, if not for those policy choices around health care, Kenney's numbers coming out of COVID could have soared. Albertans both rallied around the flag, and punished the incumbent. 

The silver lining for the premier is that sharp changes in support, in response to crises and current events, are often fleeting.  

For example, George H.W. Bush's approval rating increased 30 points to an astonishing 89 per cent with the onset of the first Gulf War in February 1991. All of that had dissipated by October 1991. 

Another issue which could have been dragging Kenney down is the controversial government plan to delist many provincial parks. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

If our interpretation of the COVID context is correct, then the premier's numbers should remain stable while other government leaders' ratings (especially those who had dramatic increases like Trudeau and Ford) should deflate to their earlier levels. And, if Kenney and the UCP's numbers remain stable at these levels, they will be handily re-elected to a majority government in 2023. 

The only thing that may change Kenney's approach — balancing action Albertans want to see with large changes that generate negative pushback — is if public support drops to a point where Kenney and the UCP fear losing the next election. 

This is not new in Alberta politics, but it is striking nonetheless. 

This presupposes, though, that other crises won't take COVID-19's place.

While oil prices started their protracted slide in 2014, they crashed lower than most thought possible just before COVID hit. The premier's budget assumptions simply cannot account for this, nor does it address how they will support the individuals and businesses that cannot recover from the pandemic. 

The "reward-punish" thesis about the economy was a strong feature of both the 2015 and 2019 provincial elections. And even before COVID-19 hit in March, Albertans were pessimistic about the state of the economy in 2020.  

While it might be tempting to resume fights with Ottawa over equalization and greater autonomy for Alberta, the difficulty is that many Albertans need that federal support

The future

For the most part, Albertans agree that the Kenney government effectively managed the COVID-19 crisis. However, they also have doubts about other parts of the Kenney agenda: confronting the doctors, spending cuts, seeking out enemies, and so on. 

When the COVID-19 crisis dissipates, what's going to stick? Goodwill stemming from how Kenney handled COVID as a short-term crisis, or frustration based on controversial changes to other programs and policies under COVID's cover? 

And in the event that neither has staying power, it's an open question if and how Albertans will reward, punish or rally to the Kenney government, as it deals with the coming economic difficulties Alberta likely faces.

The latest CBC News-Road Ahead survey was conducted between May 25 and June 1, 2020, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The survey sampled 900 respondents, randomly selected from Trend Research's online panel of more than 30,000 Albertans. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender proportions in Alberta. A comparable margin of error for a study with a probabilistic sample of this size would be plus or minus 3.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Duane Bratt is the chair and a professor in the department of economics, justice, and policy studies at Mount Royal University. Melanee Thomas teaches political science at the University of Calgary.